01/06/2015 2:05PM

2014 Eclipse Awards: Wise Dan

Barbara D. Livingston

Sometimes you look at a horse in competition and wonder: How much of this is pure instinct? Is this creature just running fast because its genes urge it onward?

And then you watch Wise Dan and think: Well, this guy, at least, really wants to do it. This horse wants the competition. This horse is not just running fast. This horse is racing.

The Bernard Baruch Handicap, a Grade 2 on Aug. 30 at Saratoga, won’t, when the flag falls, be celebrated as one of Wise Dan’s great triumphs. But when you look back over the troubled landscape of Wise Dan’s 2014 campaign and think about what it all means, the Baruch unfolds in a golden, glorious light.

Wise Dan won by a nose. He beat a horse, Optimizer, who had not won a race since February 2013. But there was so much more texture.

The Baruch was Wise Dan’s first race since he’d undergone surgery in May. Wise Dan, having won the Grade 1 Maker’s 46 Mile and the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic to start his season, began showing signs of colic the morning of May 16 after a routine gallop. Noninvasive remedies failed to stimulate motility in his guts. His connections out of options, Wise Dan went under the knife at Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, Ky., where surgeons untangled a section of bowel looped around intestine. It was simple once discovered. Had trainer Charlie LoPresti not acted promptly, it could have been much worse.

Still, any colic surgery is a major event for a racehorse, but the handicapper at Saratoga took little pity on Wise Dan, who was assigned 127 pounds for the Baruch. That was eight pounds more than any other horse in the race, and 11 more than Optimizer. Wise Dan, keen to get things on after his long break, never really relaxed in the running and never appeared to travel comfortably. The finish line could not come soon enough, but somehow, Wise Dan got to the front and stayed there just long enough to hold clear Optimizer.

It was courage, will, heart – pick your laudatory pronunciation. It was what has made Wise Dan special, and it is part of what makes Wise Dan a nominee for champion male turf horse of 2014.

The Baruch led to a sharp victory in the Grade 1 Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland in October before Wise Dan ran into the second problem of his 7-year-old season, a tiny fracture in his leg that ended his campaign before he could return to the Breeders’ Cup Mile. But even as Eclipse Award season – a standard segment of a Wise Dan year – comes around again, Wise Dan is healing, taking the first small steps toward a possible 8-year-old campaign.

Eight is old for a top horse, but the Wise Dan camp ages well. LoPresti, who seems to live on Wise Dan’s same wavelength, trains the gelding for octogenarian owner-breeder Mort Fink. Fink has said several times that Wise Dan helps keep him going. Here’s hoping horse and owner are back under bright lights in 2015.

As for the year past, Wise Dan defeated the 29 horses who raced against him. He is not unbeatable, only nearly so. Ten wins from 11 starts over the last two seasons; 19 of his last 22. None of the four races this past season would match the best Wise Dan has produced in the past. But we got the idea. Wise Dan worked for them. He wanted them. He won them.